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The enigma of the Rhodesian Ridgeback: Rhodesian Tsetse Control officers were legend--characters in every sense of the word and straight out of the prose of Robert Service's "The Men Who Don 't Fit In".


The breed is distinguished by a crest of hair that runs along the back, growing in the opposite direction to the rest of its coat. The distinguishing ridge of hair along the breed's back consists of a fan-like area formed by two crowns of hair and tapers from immediately behind the shoulders down to the level of the hips. It is normally no wider than two inches. Male Ridgebacks are considerably larger than the original Khoikhoi stock, standing some 25" plus at the shoulder and weighing around 70 pounds. They are stocky, muscular dogs and have a short, dense reddish coat that appears sleek and glossy. They may possess white regions on the chest and the feet. They are not the only modern breed to possess the unique ridge--it is also found in Asia on the Thai Ridgeback and the Phu Quoc Ridgeback. This, combined with the fact that the Dutch colonised not only the Cape but also many parts of Asia, and ships of the Dutch East India Company would call at Cape Town en route to ports like Batavia, has led to the speculation that African ridgebacks may have been transported to the orient. The ridge, caused by an autosomal dominant gene--in plain English this means one of a pair of genes, one from either parent, occurring on a chromosome other than a sex chromosome and being possessed of two forms, a dominant and a recessive--was a common characteristic of the smaller hunting dogs of the Khoikhoi with which the early Cape settlers crossed their own breeds.

The initial object was to breed a successful lion-hunting dog, and the ridgeback is known for its exceptional bravely. But over the years the Rhodesian Ridgeback has been used to hunt upland game, fowl, and the so-called dangerous game with an amazing versatility, and this has given much pause for thought as to what type of hunting dog it is.

Initially, the Dutch settlers adopted the Khoikhoi hunting dog for their own use, but it was a matter of time before European sporting breeds such as Foxhounds, terriers, Greyhounds and Bloodhounds were brought to Africa and interbred with the Khoikhoi hunting dogs. The result, the so-called Boer Hunting Dog, was the ancestor of the modern Rhodesian Ridgeback. In the 1870's ridged hunting dogs were introduced into Southern Rhodesia by the Reverend Charles Helm. Their potential was appreciated by the big game hunter Cornelius van Rooyen who crossed Helm's dogs with his own and produced a strain of hunting dogs with red coats and the telltale ridge down the back that were bred specifically to hold lion at bay. They proved equally effective on other forms of game.



As a breed, the ridgeback was first recognized in Southern Rhodesia in 1922 by Francis Bames, and registered by the South African Kennel Union in 1924 as the ubiquitous "Rhodesian Lion Dog" which was in 1926 amended to "Rhodesian Ridgeback" as requested by Bames, and then classified as a Gundog for over 20 years--the victim of a terminological inexactitude on Bames' part? Not at all.

Most people use the terms Gun-dog and Bird-dog almost interchangeably, but the term Gun-dog is misleading because the two main categories available at the time in South Africa were "Sporting" which included both Scent-hounds and Sight-hounds, and "Gun-dog" which included Bird-dogs--but had a different meaning than we ascribe to it today. At the time, while both Sporting dogs and Gun-dogs were used to flush game above ground, the Sporting dogs were expected to dispatch the game themselves, while the Gun-dogs were required to hold game at bay and wait for the hunter to make the kill with a firearm. Remembering its antecedents as a "Lion dog", the ridgeback clearly would not be expected to kill a lion, and therefore fit nicely into the Gun-dog category.

Dog breeders employ several different categories to describe different breeds, and there are arguments for the ridgeback fitting into numerous of these. It could be classified as a Scenthound, and it certainly has been employed as such innumerable times put in search of game in the very diverse habitats in Africa, where it would probably not be as successful as a Sighthound; though the early ridgebacks did have Sighthound stock, and they have been successfully run in lure-coursing field trials, particularly in the United States. Most registries today simply list the ridgeback as a Hound.

The genetics of the Rhodesian Ridgeback are worth looking at. Physical characteristics are coded for by the DNA in genes, or alleles, on chromosomes. In dogs, at least two genes are present for every characteristic--one from the paternal line and one from the maternal line. Characteristics themselves may be determined by a single pair of genes, or by many genes working in concert. The ridge of the ridgeback is a good example of a character determined by a single pair of genes which have a dominant-recessive relationship. That is, as long as one of the two genes present is dominant, the characteristic will appear; both genes must be recessive for the ridge to be absent. This type of single factor inheritance is what Gregor Mendel fortuitously picked when he studied the genetics of the height of certain species of plants; he had no idea of the mechanism of genetics, and had he selected by chance to study a characteristic that was coded for by multiple genes we might never have heard of him.

As it is, if we take the ridgeback's ridge, and if we cross a pure line (homozygous) of ridged dogs--that is, one with both genes being dominant, and a pure line of dogs without ridges where both genes are recessive, all of the offspring will be ridgebacked because they will all have one dominant gene and one recessive. But of course it is impossible to tell, by looking at a ridgeback, whether he possesses one dominant gene or two, and the consequences for the next generation are important as many breeders and canine registries in Europe have insisted on the culling of ridgeless pups. In the above example, crossing two ridgebacks that are heterozygous--that is, having one of each type of gene--for the ridge leads to a one-in-four probability that any pup will be born ridgeless. In actual fact, the incidence of ridgeless pups is lower than the 25% anticipated, and this is possibly because the parent stock used in various studies contained an inclusion of homozygotes for the ridge, and also, of course, because the 25% refers to a probability only

As with most "purebred" strains, the Rhodesian Ridgeback is prone to a number of infirmities, such as hip dysplasia and dermoid sinus, which is a growth that runs dorsolaterally along the dog's back and can lead to painful abscesses. Deafness is another hereditary condition that occurs very rarely within the breed.

The Rhodesian Ridgeback can be fiercely independent, and while a gentle enough dog around its owners, it has a wide stubborn streak, and must be treated fairly and consistently. Breeding and showing them gave Errol Flynn much pleasure, and J A Hunter remarked that they were "a truly unique hunting dog".

Hey, who ya gonna call?--you know, one thing I really enjoy about researching articles is some of the, well, unusual stuff that's out there. Like this excerpt from a website I found when I was looking for PH's comments on the ridgeback. "I have trained over 100 dogs in the past two years to hunt for real ghosts. Since moving to Houston, Texas the demand for ghost hunting dogs has become so strong I am making a DVD on how to train your dog to hunt for teal ghosts. Right now [we] are breeding a Rottweiler-Rhodesian Ridgeback Catahoula hound mix just to be a ghost hunting dog breed." So, there you have it--they even hunt ghosts! Or, maybe I should say if you're the kind of person who believes in ghosts, you may believe they do! Wonder how they're going to register that one at the kennel club?
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Title Annotation:Hunters' Guide
Author:Larivers, I.J.
Publication:African Hunter Magazine
Date:May 1, 2012
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